The meeting unfolded as usual with the posting of guards by the doors, each member taking a seat around a massive cedar table according to their rank and position. Even though he was fully aware of the Pesachya group, the high Priest Caiaphas would never attend these meetings. Neither would the two priests who were next in line for leadership. Joseph had said the leadership within the priestly order of the Pharisee line must be protected if the Romans ever discovered their agenda. Oddly, their leadership's greater fear was if the Herodians or Sadducees learned of what they were planning and reported them to the Romans. Although both groups were Jewish and both looking for a Messiah to deliver them, they knew the other would betray them in a moment to undermine the Pharisees current grip on not only temple leadership and authority, but to secure more positions on the Sanhedrin council. This would allow them a greater opportunity to instill and promote their own doctrine to their people.
Taking his seat at the far end of the table, Addi sat and listened as the leadership, led by Hadar, performed their priestly rituals before the meeting officially began, something that often took as long as the meeting itself. Various rituals would provide physical and spiritual cleansing, granting wisdom, and ultimately asking for the blessing of the Lord and His guidance of the meeting and their plans.
Addi always felt honored to be a part of the group and was welcomed by some of the members. But not being part of the priestly order or of the Sanhedrin council as most of the members were, he often felt his presence was tolerated more than welcomed by the key priestly leaders. He knew without his financial backing of their plans, he would not be sitting here. That thought brought mixed emotions, but ultimately, he was grateful for the opportunity and would play any role they desired.
Once the meeting began, Hadar allowed quick discussions on the progress of the various political and spiritual leadership initiatives they were pursuing stretching well beyond the surrounding area of Jerusalem. Addi listened as each city or region was mentioned, realizing the depth of their network. He knew very few of these key contacts and resources the Pesachya had built understood the full measure of what they were involved in. He also knew they would mobilize and fully engage in whatever role they were called upon, once the word was given.
When it was his turn to report on the financial progress his initiatives had made, there were smiles and nods of approval from even the highest ranked members.
“You have done well, Addi. Our Lord is truly with you and your efforts,” was the only verbal response given from Hadar. They moved on to the next line of business, which was what Addi enjoyed the most.
“What is the latest progress report on our search?” the Hadar asked. Everyone seemed to turn toward Johanan, who had always been the spokesman for that initiative.
“Our three prior candidates have not proven themselves to be anything other than sinful men with personal agenda’s who are not in line with the prophecies of the Messiah,” he stated, becoming more animated as he continued. “But there is a growing excitement across the city of a man in the desert people are going out to see.” He smiled and nodded as the other members waited for him to continue. He acted as if he were gathering his thoughts, but Addi knew the man was just enjoying the attention he now held as his peers waited for him to speak. Hadar quickly broke the man’s brief moment of glory.
“I suggest you tell us before we all die of old age,” he said sarcastically while the other members mumbled and nodded, causing the man to blush and stumble over his next words.
“He could be. I mean, based on the attention he is receiving...” he stopped and took a breath. “It is said he is a man of action, a man of deep conviction, a man who is calling for and requiring the people to repent.”
“Repent?” a member at the table asked and Johanan nodded.
“Yes, as it was mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah. The people are beginning to mumble that he is the one Isaiah is speaking of.” There was silence in the room. Those around the table seemed to hold their response until Hadar, who seemed to be in deep thought, revealed his direction.
“What people?” Hadar finally asked rather harshly, breaking the silence. Johanan seemed to nervously wrestle with how to respond. Addi knew other than their priestly duties in the temple and official visits to key authorities, very few of these men actually walked through the city and interacted with the common people.
“Everyone and anyone,” Addi said before he realized he had spoken. All eyes seemed to turn to him with surprised or condemning looks, as if trying to silently rebuke him for speaking. Although the priestly order was normally an exception, Addi was rarely intimidated by positions or power in discussions or negotiations. Perhaps it was because he had acquired enough influence of his own. Maybe it went even further back to the time he did nothing as his parents were killed. Either way he resented people being bullied. Addi was well versed socially to know when to remain silent if he wanted to keep his head attached to his body. However, when he felt there was an abuse of power or an ego of a man speaking, he struggled to control his reactions. Gavriel had warned him while growing up if he was not careful and wise about controlling that urge, it could cost him everything.
Addi realized he had crossed a line in this group by speaking up without prior approval from Hadar. It was clear that Hadar felt slighted by the interjection, but seemed to wrestle with how best to continue with a rebuke. Preempting the rebuke, he continued.
“My apologies for interjecting, but Johanan is right. During my travels here tonight, I overheard several conversations about this man. Not just in one area of town, but all across it.”
With a furrowed brow Hadar at first appeared he was going to deliver the rebuke everyone expected, but then he allowed the angst to pass from his face before continuing.
“What exactly were they saying about this man?” Hadar asked Addi directly, granting him approval to continue speaking. Addi was relieved.
“As Johanan stated, this man speaks and teaches the people with authority. What is more important, the people are listening to what he says and responding.” Addi answered.
“He speaks that the Kingdom of Heaven is near, that they should repent, confess their sins, and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.” Addi finished, as the murmur rumbled from those around the table.
“Blasphemy, only God can forgive sins,” one man said. Others nodded, causing the mumbling to grow louder until Hadar raised a hand.
“What price is he charging the people for this “forgiveness” of sins?” Hadar asked with a smile as if seeing the real agenda. The others nodded, understanding his meaning and looked back toward Addi. Addi shook his head as he recalled all the various discussions he had either overheard or personally participated in.
“No financial gain from what I heard. He asks only for their confession, repentance and baptism. His garments are simple, and they say all he eats is locusts and wild honey.” At the word locust, their faces changed to an almost sour expression as they contemplated the man’s diet and the responses came flowing from the members.
“The man is insane, yet the people follow him?”
“It only shows how desperate the people are,” another added.
“It would take a lot more than just honey to get me to eat locust,” one stated dryly, causing the others to laugh.
Addi remained silent and expressionless as the interjections continued and he tried to grasp the moment. Before them was a possible Messiah candidate, yet they had already written him off as a lunatic. He felt his hopes fade as he listened to their responses. He glanced back toward Hadar noticing he had remained silent and expressionless, but more interestingly and perhaps more unsettling was the fact he had not taken his eyes off of him. Hadar finally raised one hand to silence the group, then broke his gaze and looked across the room.
“Tomorrow we will arrange to discreetly visit this “John the Baptist” and find out if he is truly insane, or a possible messiah candidate,” Hadar stated dryly and then looked back toward Addi. “Addi, I would like you to join us,” he stated. Addi realized it was not a question, but an order and managed to resist the initial prideful urge to refuse the request. Deep down he realized he really wanted to visit this ‘voice’ calling in the desert and learn more about him. Addi simply nodded and started thinking about all the things on his agenda that would need to be changed to make this unscheduled trip.
It was last reported John was at the Jordan River east of Jericho. They decided to have a small group made up of priests and council members meet at the East Gate just after dawn, then travel to Jericho for the first evening to learn more of his location, continuing the next day to where he was preaching. Hadar appointed Addi to organize the supplies and moneys needed for the journey. Besides Addi, four selected priests were to join the traveling party, including himself and two Sanhedrin. Hadar then announced, the Pesachya meeting was concluded, slowly ending it after the many ritual closings and prayers were completed.
Although he was busy saying his goodbyes to those at the meeting, his mind was already working on the travel request. With four priests and two Sanhedrin traveling together, Addi was busy thinking through a plan that would allow them to travel “discreetly” through the countryside. Never seeing a priest on a horse before, he assumed they did not ride any, so he decided three covered wagons disguised as merchant wagons would provide them with the fastest, most comfortable transportation. He would bring four armed guards for protection, one mounted, and three to drive the wagons. Using covered wagons would conceal the priests while keeping them out of the direct sunlight. The wagons would also eliminate the need for extra men to carry supplies.
As he stepped outside the meeting room, he realized the sun had set and as usual, he would make the journey home in the dark, another reason why he brought his two guards with him. Addi remained deep in thought the entire walk back to the estate, remembering little of the long journey home except the hope they had finally found the Messiah.
The wagons creaked along the cobbled road in front of him, a road leading from Jericho to the Jordan River. Addi looked at the three heavily loaded wagons and smiled again. He had never traveled with priests, so his idea of traveling “discreetly” had a far different look than that of a religious leader. The fact was, there had been nothing discreet about their entire journey. From their departure to their destination, there were rituals needing to be performed at each stop or start. In addition, each priest traveled in his full priestly regalia. Any thought of sneaking out was clearly impossible. He also had not realized each priest required two assistants plus a huge amount of luggage and ritual items. It was more than he could have ever imagined. What started as six guests, turned into eighteen, requiring their personal attendants either to ride on the buckboard with the driver, or walk behind the wagons. What he had planned as an early departure under the cover of darkness, took place almost four hours later under the watchful eyes of a large crowd as the growing pile of personal items were loaded and the ritual blessings were performed. At first Addi was frustrated, but then it became almost comical as he and his men shook their heads and waited patiently.
As a result, the spacious wagons Addi had provided were now cramped and heavily loaded. With the combination of rituals and overloaded wagons, they were already a day behind schedule, moving much slower than he had anticipated. Hadar’s early excitement had turned to a dour disappointment that was obviously evident, growing fouler with each bump in the road. Whether it was divine intervention or just good fortune, Addi was grateful he had decided at the last moment to add a spare riding horse to the group in case of an emergency, a horse he now rode.
It had been a long journey, but now the Jordan River was in sight and clear directions in hand to locate where this potential messiah was located, the excitement was growing with each step. The road was surprisingly busy in both directions, mostly consisting of foot traffic. By the expressions of those they met traveling from the Jordan River, Addi was getting increasingly excited at their prospects of finding the Messiah. Almost everyone they encountered was rejoicing and encouraging those they met to continue. At first, they stopped to question each person they met, but the story was the same and it was only slowing their progress. This John was calling everyone to repent, confess their sins, and be baptized to prepare the way for the Lord. There were very few people they met who had not done so and strangely enough, he could tell by their expressions or countenances those who had and those who had not consented to be baptized. Addi’s heart was racing as he saw the crowd of people down by the river.
As they brought the wagons to a stop in a nearby field, the priests and attendants slowly climbed down from the wagons. It had been a long journey and they were stiff and sore, but Addi could see the growing excitement on their faces as they adjusted their robes and gathered their staffs. Addi was also stiff as he climbed off his horse, tying it to a wheel on one of the wagons. He motioned to the guards to stay with the wagons, then fell in line behind the priests and Sanhedrin as they followed Hadar toward the focal point of the crowd.
As they got closer, Addi wondered if the Messiah would somehow know why they were there. Would he somehow read their minds, embrace the priests and acknowledge each of the roles they had played in preparing for his arrival and the return of his earthly Kingdom? As they approached the river, the crowds of people waiting their turn to be baptized, parted to make room for Hadar and the rest of them to pass through, eventually stopping once they got to the edge of the river.
Before them were two men waist deep in the river. One dressed in a well-worn garment tied snugly at his waist with a leather belt. Although thin, he was well built with muscles on his tanned arms looking like ropes tied together. His hair and beard were somewhat frazzled and longer than normal. There was nothing unique about him other than the extreme commonness of his look. The other man looked far different, with expensive white garments, his hair and beard neatly trimmed. Although at first glance one would think or wish the man in white would be the possible Messiah. Knowing what they had heard about him, Addi knew it was the other man that people had come to see.
The man in white appeared to be speaking quietly into the other man’s ear, who then nodded, responding quietly in return. The interaction continued for several minutes. Finally, the man in white nodded and turned slightly to face the crowd as the other man grasped the front of his clothes, lowering him into the water until he disappeared beneath it. Moments later he would pull the man back up out of the water and guide him briefly toward the direction of the shoreline. As the freshly baptized man pushed through the waist deep water, wiping his face and smiling as if in relief, he would pass another individual who was nervously wading out to repeat the process.
Addi could feel his heart beating faster with each baptism they watched. What sins would he confess? He wondered as he thought about his life. As each new person went into the water to confess their sins and be baptized, he became more nervous and insecure with the idea of “confessing his sins” to this man he did not know. He knew he was far from being sinless, but he felt he strove to lead a good and righteous life, a life that would honor God. He thought about all he had done, all he had given up personally to develop the resources needed to fund and support an army that could drive out the Romans. Surely, he did not need to confess his sins. Yet the peace and joy each freshly baptized individual had as they climbed back onto the bank of the Jordan River was far different from the look they had carried into the river. There was peace. Perhaps they were serious sinners he thought as another person waded out toward the man waiting in the water.
Addi saw the movement of Hadar as he held out his staff to stop the next person ready to go down into the water. Seeing Hadar’s garb, the man bowed slightly and stepped back. As the current individual, a woman, exited the water, there was an awkward lull in what had been a steady and consistent flow. The man named John noticed it also and looked toward the bank where Hadar and the rest of their group stood waiting with the sun behind them.
At first John raised his hand to block the sun enough to determine what was causing the delay. Seeing Hadar and the other Pharisees and Sanhedrin members and assistants in their white robes and hats, he seemed to take a deep breath and closed his eyes a moment. Then with apparent renewed strength, he waded toward the bank of the river where they stood.
Addi was nervous and excited to hear this man’s voice, the possible voice of the Messiah, expecting John to embrace and welcome Hadar and the rest of the group that had traveled so far to see him. Did he already know why they were here? Addi wondered as the man drew closer and then stopped at the edge, still standing in the water just out of reach, waiting. Hadar finally broke the silence spreading throughout the entire crowd.
“You have produced quite a stir across the country, offering confession and repentance. Under what authority do you claim to do such things?” Hadar asked with a smile, apparently wanting to skip the formalities and get to the point. John looked at the crowd and then back at Hadar.
“I am not the Christ,” He stated loudly for all to hear. Hadar seemed stunned by his response and loud proclamation.
“Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” Hadar asked and John shook his head.
“I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?” Hadar asked, apparently referencing a scripture from the Torah. Again, John shook his head.
Hadar, as was Addi and the rest of the group who had traveled all this way, seemed very disappointed by the responses. Hadar took a deep breath. With a curt and condescending voice, he asked, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
“I am the voice of one calling in the desert that Isaiah prophesied, to make straight the way for the Lord.’” Hadar seemed stunned by the reference and pressed John further.
“Why then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” Hadar almost hissed the words in frustration.
“I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie,” John replied. Hadar at first remained silent, but then smiled and shook his head.1
“You do not know your Torah, or the people of Abraham, or what the Messiah would look like when he comes. You are simply another impostor who is not fit to untie anyone’s shoes.” Hadar hissed loudly so the entire crowd could hear his words. The crowd began to murmur at the uncomfortable and awkward moment before them. Addi could see John was also aware of the change in the crowd as a result of the strong rebuke coming from one of their religious leaders. He looked back at all of those in their group, his eyes stopping briefly on Addi, then shook his head.
“You brood of vipers! Tell me, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? You should focus on producing fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize with water for repentance. But if repentance is something that you chose to refuse, know that after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry, let alone untie. He will baptize you with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Choose wisely which path you will take?” John said, with his eyes stopping on Addi.2
As Hadar stood silently, Addi could see Hadar's embarrassment and uncertainty of how to respond. It was clear he was trying to control the anger welling up inside. Not waiting, John turned and walked back into the water, motioning the next individual to join him. A moment before, there had been respect and fear from the nearby crowd giving Hadar and the rest of the group plenty of space. Now they closed the gap, some even pushing past their group as they reformed the earlier line they had created to take their turn.
Sensing the moment, Hadar turned and pushed his way through the crowd, heading back toward the wagons. Addi did not follow, but turned back to look at John. His words were those of a well-learned man, not an insane man. He was disappointed they had not found the Messiah, something John flatly denied. If he was not the Messiah, then whom was John referring to? Despite John’s denial of being any of those they were looking for, Addi felt the urge to obey his simple message and be baptized. But he also knew that would mean going against Hadar and all that he had been working toward. He already felt he was in enough hot water with Hadar and knew this would not go well if he got into John's line. “Chose wisely,” John had said as he looked at Addi.
“Addi!” His name was yelled across the crowd. He turned to see one of Hadar’s attendants motioning for him to come, Hadar standing behind the attendant staring at him. Too much to lose, Addi thought as he turned and pushed through the crowd toward Hadar and their wagons. Perhaps he will come back at another time to meet this John the Baptist and maybe even get baptized.
1 John 1:19-28
2 Matthew 3:1-12